Sunday, 22 November 2009

Famous albino squirrel and other autumn miscellany

Meet the famous albino squirrel of Dorking, which we happened across last month in one of its favourite haunts, the St Martins churchyard in the centre of the town. We were surprised by it, as albino squirrels are quite rare, and it wasn't all that famous when partner captured this image on his phone. But don't go rushing off to Dorking to visit the squirrel, as a couple of weeks later, BBC national TV reported that it had come to an unfortunate end under a car. We heard this sad news from Have I Got News For You, though it was originally covered in the national press. Paul Merton was very entertaining about it in his deadpan way... he's a local boy you know, from Morden, at the south end of Northern line.
Be not downhearted though. In our local paper the following week there was news of two more albino squirrels a few miles away in Carshalton, Surrey. Let's hope they're a bit more wary of the traffic.

Isn't this a gorgeous display of vegetables? I wish I could take the credit for them, but they came from uncle David's allotment. His sweetcorn did marvellously this season (you can see a beautiful pile of them at the back) but I'm also really jealous of that beautiful cabbage in the middle - maybe I'll try growing some next year.
Next, the last of the cornflowers, from the edges of a patch of meadowland, still bravely flowering (if a little the worse for wear) after the strong winds and pelting rain of the last 48 hours. They were quite luminous in the twilight, as only true blue can seem.
We found them up at the top of Cheam recreation ground, which is mostly football and rugby pitches, where it borders Nonsuch Park and has an amazing view across south London to the City and Canary Wharf beyond on a clear afternoon like today. Somebody (London Wildlife Trust? Local council? I've forgotten) planted up a gorgeous plot, about 30 metres square, with meadow and wild flowers, earlier this year and there were notices informing us that this was an experiment, and would be monitored for wild birds and other creatures. I first came across it in September when of course it was past its best, but still beautiful with poppies, cornflowers and sunflowers. l
One Sunday last month we walked past to find a flock of about two dozen bright green parakeets harvesting the sunflower seeds, a gorgeous sight; but I wonder if they were the wild life it was designed to attract? Not much left today to feed the smaller native seed eaters - goldfinches, greenfinches and the like.
Lastly, some English oaks in their autumn finery before the wind blows all the leaves away. Common enough round here, but they seem to be the last to change from green to copper then brown, so hold the final riches of autumn. They looked so warm and bright as the sun set late on Saturday afternoon. Looking at them feels almost like the physical need for summer sunshine, I stare and stare, greedily feeding on the warm bright colours, stoking up my inner fires before the cold grey winter really sets in.

Saturday, 21 November 2009

Beetroot brownies and mellow soupfulness

The monthly requirement for chocolate, part of life for more years than I care to remember, has left me this year, but suddenly it was back again last week. Perhaps it was the cold wet weather, but comforting soup and some chocolate brownies were definitely on the family menu.
We had some Jerusalem artichokes, which Jenny had brought to share round at choir practice. In recent high winds the plants had fallen over, bringing many of the tubers up to the surface, so she had dug them all up over the weekend. Together with some cauliflower from our allotment and a 120g piece of organic stilton, a pint of chicken stock and a chopped red onion sweated in butter, all whizzed together after about 40 minutes simmering, we had a gorgeous creamy, savoury soup for lunch.
The recipe for chocolate brownies was from Riverford Farm Cook Book and is a real treat. Start by melting together 250g dark chocolate and 200g unsalted butter in a bowl over hot water. Add 1 tablespoon Tia Maria (I used Camp coffee for a more intense flavour).
Meanwhile puree 250g cooked beetroot in a food processor. Add three eggs (one at a time), a drop of vanilla extract and 200g caster sugar and mix until smooth.
In another bowl, sift together 50g cocoa powder, 50g ground rice, 1 tsp baking powder and 100g ground almonds.
Stir the beetroot mixture into the melted chocolate & butter mix and then fold in the dry ingredients.
Use greaseproof paper to line a rectangular tin about 28 x 18 cm. pour in the mixture and put in oven mark 4 (180C). Bake for 30-35 mins until just firm to the touch; a skewer inserted in the centre should emerge slightly sticky.
Cool in the tin, cut up and serve.
The recipe says this is enough for 9 portions but I cut it into 20 as the chocolate is very intense, plus all the eggs and butter makes for quite a rich texture and flavour. Perhaps I should only have added a couple of teaspoons of the Camp coffee. Anyway, we've been enjoying the brownies all week!

Sunday, 8 November 2009

21st century fruit farming - one man's view.

My mother and I enjoyed a talk and tour round Park Farm in Great Holland with Mr Elsworth, who owns and runs it as a thriving enterprise, a few weekends ago. Having recently planted three fruit trees in our back garden I was interested to learn what I could about looking after them - and encouraging fruitfulness of course.
Along the way he also shed light on changes for small to medium sized fruit producers since he took over the farm from his father, who first established it in 1935. There's no doubt the environment has become very tough for them.
For a start, only about 1/6th of the farm's original 60 hectares of orchards, is now devoted to fruit. Most of what they grow is sold locally, mainly through their own shop - and none through supermarkets or wholesalers, the latter were an important route to market in his father's time. Mr Elsworth related his last experience of delivering Discovery apples, usually the first early variety of the English apple season, up to the London markets one year, when most other UK growers' crops had failed. A peculiarity of the local coastal climate had saved his crop and he sent them up by train, expecting a good price in conditions of scarcity. They didn't sell, and he hadn't sent any away since.
The farm is not organic and I was mildly amused by his brief summary of why not. Apparently people who support organics think you don't use chemicals to sort out pests and yet organic farmers do need to use them. He said the knack to producing good quality fruit was to grow healthy trees, then disease wouldn't take hold. To me that is exactly what organic growing is all about! Using as little chemicals as possible, and those from an approved list of poisons derived from natural substances. Ah well, no one is perfect.
Most of the work of the farm is done by human beings and it's no picnic running a farm of this size, much of the outdoor work with casual labour. Young people don't stay on in permanent employment - he's just got them trained and they move on to something else. He commented wryly that if he needs 16 people to prune or pick apples he has to ask 20 to come in as he knows about a fifth won't turn up. In his experience, migrant labourers are more reliable - partly because they live onsite during the season so he knows where to find them when needed!
Beyond the problems of farming, he also shared some useful information for we gardeners! He showed us the Writtle College method of picking apples - cupping the fruit in your hand and rolling, rather than tugging it off the branch so the stalk stays on and keeps the fruit sealed and whole for storage (if the apples don't roll off easily they aren't ready). And he shared a technique to use alongside pruning for perfectly formed fruit trees - small concrete weights made in egg cartons and hung on individual branches to encourage them to grow outwards rather than up, for better productivity. He also uses calcium foliar feeds as needed, as this nutrient is difficult to administer in any other form.
We were surprised to hear that honey bees are not as useful as they're cracked up to be for pollination of fruit trees! Apparently the lazy things don't come out unless the weather is warm
(not always the case in our British spring). Other insects ( including other types of bee) are hardier, out earlier, and seem to do the job as well. Plus, the more flowers are pollinated, the more tiny fruits have to be removed from the trees in early summer (thus incurring additional labour costs) in order to produce a good crop of evenly spaced healthy apples! Over the last couple of years, the local beekeeper has taken his hives elsewhere and the crop has been more than adequately pollinated in their absence.

Park Farm produces 40 varieties of apple and it's a real treat to visit the farm's shop and choose. This time we brought home George Cave, Blenheim Orange, Egremont Russet and Ashmead's Kernel, all of excellent quality. We also had three litres of their fresh unpasteurised apple juice, which is usually available in at least three different varieties and vastly superior to (even the good) stuff from supermarket chiller cabinets. They supply boxes of fruit - follow the link above for further information. And if you should be somewhere near Clacton, do drop in for local vegetables and other fresh foods - and try their recently opened coffee shop, which does very reasonable lunches and delicious home baked cakes and desserts.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Soil Association director in Sutton

Patrick Holden, director of the Soil Association, will address the Surrey Organic Gardening Group on 27 November. The event, which marks the 40th anniversary of SOGG, is open to all with an interest in gardening, whether organic or aspiring to it.
His talk, from 7.30 pm, will take place at Milton Hall, Cooper Crescent, Carshalton. To reserve a place call Alastair 020 8669 6692.